Thursday, April 10, 2014

How To Splitboard

I’ve heard a menagerie of reasons why snowboarders who were lured to the backcountry on a splitboard have quit and gone over to skiing.This never ceaces to both annoy me, and make me sad.
There is only one reason I ever find this transition to be acceptable – and that’s a topic for another post – anything else is just an excuse.
What I will say, and have said before, is that splitboarding absolutely takes more effort compared to backcountry skiing.
It’s not surprising that splitboarders are often known for their “hustle.”
They need to be much more actively engaged in their terrain choices to determine the best line, and to understand what their options are for a mode of travel, and which will be most effective.
I grew up snowboarding the east. I aimed for hardwood glades and mogul fields. For me, it was all about the challenge presented by the terrain and the mountain..even if they were smaller mountains.
To complain that splitboarding is too much work, is to miss completely the point of going into the backcountry at all.
If you simply want to whiz down a hill with minimal effort, consider staying on area…the green circle trails are usually the easiest.
While you should absolutely quit and take up couch surfing if the idea of having to work a bit for a fun line scares you, here are some tips to make the ride that much better.
My target audience here is pretty broad, so I apologize if some of the advice seems either basic or generic.
Learn how to ski, at least a little bit:
OK, despite the fact that the basis of this post is to keep snowboarders boarding as opposed to AT skiing, the fact of the matter is, at the very least, 50% of splitboarding is skiing.
Being comfortable on two boards is key. I have seen more than a few talented boarders lock up in fear when they had to point their split down a short embankment a fraction the size of your average Iowa sledding hill.
Splitboards don’t make for good skis, there’s no question about that, and you will never make skiing on a splitboard look good, but that’s not the point.
My advice: head to your local lift serve hill and rent or borrow skis for one day a season and ski groomers on a day when the backcountry is not inviting/safe. If that’s not an option, try Nordic skiing (WHAT!?).
The time spent on skis will help immensely with balance and technique, not to mention, skiing is actually fun (YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!) Remember too, if you do any Nordic: neon lycra makes you faster.
Here’s some easy tips. On uphill travel, remember that splitboards are wide, and will struggle to sidehill across firmer terrain. Be aware that your downhill ski, which will have the shaped outside of the board edge as the inside ski edge, will have less bite than the straight edge of the uphill ski (inside for board). Expect less security from your downhill leg on firm snow. A set of Voile touring mount riser blocks will give you more leverage on an edge. Investing in ski crampons, which are offered by all splitboard binding makers, can make tough, low elevation rain/melt crust, or wind hammered ridges, easier by many fold.
Steep kick turns are not a splitboarder’s friend.
While overall board weight can make climbing hard in general, heavier boards are especially tough to repeatedly swing around kick turns.
The next two biggest factors when it comes to steep kick turns are the inside edge issues already discussed, along with the shovel action created by the twin tips of the boards.
As discussed, the side-cut issue will make it difficult to have confidence weighting a downhill ski.
The twin tips create twin  issues. The up-turned tail means you can’t anchor the tail of a split ski. If you follow a someone without a twin tip, you may see them anchor their tail from time to time. Meanwhile, the nose of the board can “shovel-tip” itself into the snow of a steep back wall on a kick turn.
The best bet to remedying all of this is to first recognize if a kick turn is going to be a problem before making it. 
If the turn is steep, hard packed, or washed out, plan on taking the extra second to hammer your inside edge in place with a firm stomp while executing the turn.
Always try to get you heels at least on level with, or slightly above the apex of the turn. Cutting a corner is not only harder, but it washes the track out, making the kick turn worse for the next person. I always like to tell people to try and step down into the kick turn if they can.
As for the shovel-tip issue, if the backwall is steep, and looks like it will try and capture the tip of the board, use your pole to cut away some of the backwall first, and create more turning room. Do this by planting the pole and cutting an arc in a semi-circle through the wall, cutting away a block of snow.
Be sure to push this snow away if possible.
Steep kick turns suck up energy. If you’re already feeling pumped before you have to make a difficult one, slow down as you approach it, or take a breather before you begin. Never stop in the middle of a steep kick turn, you’re almost guaranteed to pump your legs or lose your purchase holding the awkward position. It’s much easier to rest above or below a turn. When you begin the turn, just keep moving, no matter what.
Typically, I modulate my pace on the skin track, moving with long strides as I leave a kick turn, and slowing and shortening my stride as I approach aggressive turns. How much I throttle my pace depends on how hard I anticipate the kick turn being and how steep the track is.
You will learn your pacing in time, and get stronger the more time you spend out.
Lastly, if the track is too steep, or too washed out, instead of cursing the creator, consider making your own.
Take care of you skins, both on and off the mountain. Spark R&D makes splitboard skin tail clips, which are highly recommended. There are also some DIY options out there. Keep your skins out of the snow during transitions. Incidental frost build up will usually occur around the tip and tail on the underside of the skin regardless. Rapidly rubbing the effected part of the glue on a shell or snowpants easily wipes the frost away and rejuvenates the glue. I don’t use skin savers and have had few problems, but certainly use them, or fold the skins on themselves, when you put them away at the top of a run. On colder days, it may be helpful to throw the skins inside your jacket while you transition at the bottom of a run so the glue rejuvenates a bit. On really cold days, I usually make my descent with my skins inside my shell.
If you’re riding for days in a row, make it a priority to dry your skins before each outing if possible, treating them like you would a critical base layer you need to be dry. If I don’t think my skins will have time to dry on their own, I will use a hair dryer to help them out. Otherwise, I hang them up in a warm, dry spot. When putting them away for a few days or an extended period, let them dry first, and then keep them stuck together, and sealed up as much as possible.
Skin glue will wear out with time, and the skins traction will fade. It is your decision on how much TLC your skins need, and when to replace them.
Identify the terrain and the appropriate mode of travel
OK, now we get into the meat of it. As a splitboarder, you have a number of different travel options. Deciding on the fly which is most appropriate takes experience, but here are some tips.
·        Board
Duh. You’re a splitboarder. This is what you came out here to do after all. For the most part this is fairly obvious, but what about running into a short decent on a long approach? My criteria, is that I typically won’t put the board together for anything less than 400 vertical feet. It’s just not worth it. There are caveats though. One for sure, is safety. I’m pretty comfortable on my split skis, but if you’re not confident in your ability to split ski a slope, whether due to steepness, snow quality, or obstacles like trees and rocks, do what you know best.
·        Ski
Pssst, I’ll tell you a secret: split skiing is easier with your skins on. Skins are like training wheels. They slow you down and give the skis some consistency. If you’re intimated by a descent, but think it’s too short to make it worth going into board mode, try descending with your skins on. You can traverse around easier, climb out of tricky situations, and avoid losing control. While a more advanced skier might rip skins and milk the short shot, it’s probably not worth your time, and you may be down it, and moving onward before they even get their skins back on. Making a descent in ski mode without skins is more ideal if you need to trudge out a long, powdery valley bottom where you can maintain some glide, but cannot cross country snowboard, or need to drop a short, mellow slope.
·         Cross country board
Ah yes, this is my favorite: Cross country snowboarding, also sometimes called Euro-boarding, is when you keep your board together, and whip out the poles to help keep you going. Ideal terrain for this is either a descent punctuated with shorts flats or a short rise; or gradually descending, firm packed valley bottoms. Typically, you will want to stay on an established track or other packed surface where you can stay afloat and get some pushing power out of the poles. I use this frequently on gradual exits where momentum and gravity alone don’t let me maintain speed, but anything from a regular to intermittent boost from the poles will be enough to keep going for anywhere from 100 yards to the car, to a few miles of winding fire road.
Flat/gradual or short uphills
·         Shuffle ski without skins
Basically, the same as skiing, but now you’re pretty much just shuffling. This is more effective in flat valley bottoms, crossing lakes, etc, where the snow is either cold or dry, or firm packed. In the former, the abrasive cold powder may actually provide enough friction that you can begin to classic ski. Start with very short quick strides to get moving and then lengthen the stride until you get into a good rhythm without much slip. On firm packed surfaces do this and double pole, or skate, sometime a mix of the two. I use this technique often when heading across a short valley back to the car.
·         Skin
Yep, this is obvious: You’re headed back up. Also, if you’re traveling through rolling terrain, or fast, wetter, fresh snow in flat terrain, you’ll be better on skins. In the latter, you may find this to be the case even on slightly downward tilted terrain.
·         Boot
AKA, getting back to your roots. In some situations, the best bet is just to step out and walk. Classic terrain for this will be a long rolling descent punctuated by either small hills or flats that can’t be powered over/through with poles, or well-traveled traverses where a track will provide decent footing. In certain situations, I will pop out of my bindings on a flat, and find skier friends down the trail, trying to duck walk with their skis on, while I walk past them, step back in, and wait for them to catch up. Keep in mind, booting can also make other peoples’ lives suck. If you’re tearing things up, don’t be a jerk and make everyone else suffer.
Splitboarders have a lot more going on with their gear than skiers. Regardless of what binding system you use, you have more stuff mounted to your deck and secured to your feet.
In general, investment will pay off. You have to schlep your gear to the top of a mountain, and every pound you carry is a pound trying to keep you from the summit. More, you actually want to enjoy the ride back down.
My experience with DIY boards is that while they may offer a more familiar ride and a bargain price if you already own it, they’re climbing performance will suffer, and they likely won’t be the right board for technical terrain. It’s rare that I espouse true board elitism, but my experience is that if you want a good ride and performance, buy a board from a snowboard company. Jones is hands down my top pick, but I hear a lot of positive reviews from riders on LibTech and Venture. My first board was a Voile Mojo. I still have it, and call it “old reliable.” It’s base has been scared deeply by early and late season thin cover, it’s not very light, it’s ride quality in deep pow sucks, but it was a pretty good jack of all trades, and a great starter. Voile, while also a ski company, has been in the split business for a long time, and while their boards lack somewhat compared to the competition in overall performance, they won’t beat up your wallet as bad either.
For bindings, I’ve gone back to basics, and recommend a puck and pin system. I think that either Karakoram, Spark, or some unknown upstart will eventually emerge with a proven, reliable system, but based on my own experiences and reviews online, I’m going to let them battle it out and smooth out the kinks in their respective systems before I sink any more cash into unproven tech.
Boots are straightforward: comfy, warm, lightweight, and responsive. I’m rocking Burton Driver Xs. They’re all the above. They do have known issues with the lacing, so beware. I will say that I have never heard someone on the skin track comment:
“Dang these boots are chaffing/killing/freezing my feet, but I’m sure glad I got them for dirt cheap.”
If you’re on a budget, consider splurging for the boots…there’s no lodge in the backcountry to retire to if your feet are shredded.
Keep hardware mounted to the deck and the bindings tight, watch straps for wear, and pivot points and connections for play. Touring is stressful on equipment. Sure, you may only do a few runs a day while touring compared to dozens at a resort, but you are actually probably working your boots, bindings, and boards as hard. What’s more, in certain cases, failure may carry consequences. Keep everything tuned and replace worn parts before you head out on an epic.
My standards for gear are reliability first, lightweight second. I want to be confident in my stuff, and I don’t want it to weigh me down.
Kind of in the same vane as equipment maintenance, keep your bases waxed for conditions. Skinning is nasty on the bases. Ice crystals that sit between the skin and base will dry things out. Meanwhile, no snowboarder wants to get caught in a flat. Good glide can keep you cruising through. I usually wax every other weekend, or after a significant change in weather. I usually put the boards away for the season with a coat of Swix pink I can scrape off quickly should I do any summer skiing. In the late summer or fall, I will throw on swix purple so the bases are more inclined for colder glacier powder in September or October.
Make sure to do a good job scraping and brushing bases after waxing. Residual wax will end up stuck to your skins, killing the glue, and possibly your run. Resort skiing, you can get away with being lazy on scraping, and just slam a few icy groomers. Not so when skiing powder.
Travel with the right crew
Probably nothing kills me more than the following two statements:
“I quit splitboarding because I was tired of being the ‘slow-boarder.’”
“I quit splitboarding because I was tired of my friends dragging me on huge traverses and making my life hell.”
If this is you, if your friends can’t wait 60 extra second for you, if your friends are intentionally taking you places to make your life suck, or intentionally skiing lame traverses, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but these people are not your friends.
First off, your transitions should not take significantly longer than a skier’s. If they are, you need to figure out why and speed it up. It’s true, you may have to stay on the hustle, but that’s fine, you came out to ride, right?
If your skier friend(s) can’t sit tight for an extra 60 seconds though, what makes you think they’re gonna have the patience to dig you out of a slide, or have the patience to keep eyes on you while you drop a technical line?
As for your friends trying to make your life hard, well, good-natured ribbing is a part of the skin track conversation. If your friends intentionally ski areas for no other reason than so you suffer though, that’s both your fault for going with, and their character flaw for being d-bags.
Snowboards perform best in steeper, deeper terrain. This is what you should be looking for when you go touring, and your partners should be looking at the mountain the same way. Most my skier partners would be described as having an “aggressive” style. They like to open it up, and look for direct fall lines, or playful features.
It’s not to say they’re doing it right, and any other way is wrong; I also have ski partners that can work a mountain to death, eeking out turns where no one would imagine them. I admire them as well. That doesn’t mean I’ll traverse halfway across a bowl to wiggle a half-dozen turns on some roll-over, but you bet that I’m happy to share trail breaking, and keep eyes on them while they get after it if they do the same for me.
The best dynamic in touring partners is teamwork. Everyone is out there for the same reason: having fun and skiing pow. Your crew should be talking the whole time about what’s best for everyone. When it works, it’s awesome, and you know it.


wfinley said...

I'm no splitboarder but I ski with one. His $.02 on splitboarding: (1) Wear hard boots because you can't rock climb or ice climb in soft boots. (2) Dynafits for the up becuase nothing beats tech bindings for range of motion and speed.

Dante said...

Both good points Billy. I don't have strong feelings one way or the other, soft vs hard boots. I would like to give hard boots on a board a try one day so I could at least have a slightly better-formed opinion. In my opinion, for ski mountaineering on a splitboard, there's not much debate about it, hard boots win, though many top-level riders still use soft. For the more casual rider, soft boots are probably more sensible, namely because they're familiar, light, and comfy.

Jeremy A said...

Great writeup! Exactly what I was looking for. And great sense of humor too.

One question though: All arguments as to the ascent aside; how does the descent quality compare on a split vs skis?

I'm a lifelong boarder, new at splitboarding, and I have never wanted to put on a pair of skis. But as my eyes are opening to the backcountry world I have to wonder what, if any, benefits there are to descending on skis. It looks much more difficult and a lot less fun, and just generally isn't my style.

But if the benefits of both ascending and descending add up then maybe I should give it more thought...

Dante said...

Thanks Jeremy, glad it helped.
I think you answered your own question: if you love boarding and don't want to put on a pair of skis, than don't.
I've gone through at least 3 revs on skiing vs boarding, but on and off area. Every time I've landed back on boarding. The main reason: it's what I love to do.
There are for sure some definite advantages to skiing vs boarding. For a longer-winded read, this is what I had to say after my first season on a split:
Skis are more practical, and unlike boards, they are just as fun in the steeps or the flat to rolling terrain. Skis are especially optimal for technical (read: hard pack)ski mountaineering, and racking up vertical. That being said, boarders can handle hard pack too, that's just more a question of the operator. Racking up vertical is a question of motivation.
On the other hand, you should do what you love, and ski or ride the terrain you want. If steeps and deeps are what you want, realistically, the board is the ultimate weapon. Best of all, we now live in a time where split boards ride just as well as solids.
Good luck on your split, I look forward to checking in on your blog.